Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

How Much Can You Demand?

There was a full house on hand last night at New York's Housing Works Cafe and Bookstore for an Occupy Wall St. panel organized by n+1, Brooklyn's hometown literary journal. The panel was larger than advertised, totaling seven in addition to moderator and n+1 progenitor Keith Gessen. A healthy mix of contributors were on board: there was the earnest, washed-up political wonk who'd been sleeping in Zucotti Park for a month now, the filmmaker who'd been downtown since the very first meeting, the SEIU representative and the education policy activist; there were youngs and olds, students and professionals, seasoned organizers and first time protesters.

The discussion all got started with a talk of origin stories after Gessen invited those who'd had the earliest involvement with the occupation to tell the audience of its genesis. These stories were already old hat for myself and others in the room who have obsessively followed OWS since its inception, but it turned out to be a valuable introduction nonetheless since—as we were to discover later during the Q&A period—there were a number of curious people in attendance still unfamiliar with what OWS is all about.

After this round of introductory niceties, in which panelists offered their take (or, in some cases, lack thereof) on how the movement came to be, what it meant and where it was going, Gessen showed a pair of videos seemingly arranged as a sort of point-counterpoint: first, a video of the October 25th occupation of New York City's Panel for Educational Policy; and second, the now-viral footage of the October 26th arrest of a Citibank customer at her local branch shortly after having closed her account.

The videographer of the latter clip, who was seated on the panel, was invited to narrate the choppy footage, and her narration injected an eerie presence into a video much of the audience was already well familiar with, something that only served to reactivate that initial horror of watching public police forces step in on behalf of private business interests.

Gessen then invited the organizer of the Department of Education occupation—also sitting on the panel—to discuss those events at length, although the invitation came with a leading question: Gessen asked, in effect, to justify this thing he had found "disturbing." And it was a fair question! Albeit one inexpertly answered: Bloomberg's Panel for Educational Policy is a sham democracy, its members are unelected and unaccountable, mayoral appointments outnumber independent appointments, and therefore (therefore!) it was a meeting ripe for an occupation and a hostile takeover by the people's mic. Members of the audience fidgeted, squirmed and pecked at iPhones as she hijacked the panel with a twenty-minute digression into the wonky minutiae of New York education policy and history; I fidgeted and squirmed at how her logic necessarily meant that every one of the tens of thousands of unelected and unaccountable executive staffers who head to Washington after we elect a president every four years should also be subject to precisely the same treatment (occupy next week's FEC hearing! occupy the State Department! occupy the Supreme Court!).

The panel then followed with a lot of talk of the burning question: the subject of demands. There turned out to be so much to say on this subject that it dominated the rest of the evening right up until the Q&A period.

There would be no demands, the audience was reminded, most notably by Sarah Resnick, who offered up the boilerplate but still very eloquent explanation that to make demands of elected officials or of an established political system is to concede to either asking permission of those in power or to implicitly accepting to merely agitate within a system one deems improper, incorrect or otherwise less than preferable. And that's a good thesis! The other panelists followed up with allusions to Mubarak ("The people in power always ask your demands first because they have the resources with which to pay you off"), standard issue conspiracy theorizing ("They've tried arresting us, they've tried scaring us off, they've tried pepper spraying us, and they've tried taking away our generators but now they're running out of responses so their next tactic will be to turn us against ourselves and against each other"), and finally an effort to reconcile the demands of the movement at large (OWS as an umbrella makes no demands) with the demands of its constituent members (individuals and working groups of individuals can—and do!—make demands, demands that simply don't reflect on OWS on the whole).

And it was when these individuals spoke, individually, of their individual demands that I began to worry, because despite how radical Resnick's formulation is, the specific demands that did get tossed out by other panelists were, sadly, not so much: student loan reform, higher tax rates for billionaires, a job for everyone, and so on. And this is a problem! Because this very honorable formulation of why the movement cannot make demands (a refusal to cooperate with existing rulers and the structural status quo) was being trumpeted by people who will very happily talk out of the other side of their mouths in specifics that couldn't possibly pertain more to existing economic and political structures and leadership ("We won't make demands of our elected leaders because we don't want to ask their permission, but we will ask our corporate leaders to give us all jobs").

Moreover, the reasoning behind not making demands most certainly does not preclude making demands of our collective imagination, and yet the majority of these panelists demonstrated very little willingness to think big, to think long-term. On the contrary, contributors took pride in not discussing ends, because ends in themselves are as problematic as demands are in this complicated relationship between the movement and the status quo. The one occupier on the panel, Haywood Carey, who'd spent the past month sleeping in Zucotti, returned on numerous occasions to the merits of "small-'d' democracy," "leaderless movements" and "consensus based decision making," emphasizing them with sufficient frequency as to solicit at least a couple of visible eyerolls in my immediate vicinity. He even went so far as to suggest—confusing for a moment the temporal and the teleological—that were the movement's end to come tomorrow it would already be a success, because now the people were talking, the people were busy doing their small-'d' democracy.

In a twist on the old Machiavellian traditional, the means had become the ends, and in the process he exposed two enormous problems the movement faces.

First, while its refusal to make any specific demands is admirable, that stand becomes problematic when a movement's constituent members demonstrate a worrisome lack of courage to imagine any alternatives or to conceive of the mere possibility of making demands outside of existing political and economic structures. Only one panelist last night even got close to enunciating an alternative, when Meaghan Linick, the videographer behind the Citibank arrest, mentioned that she and her friends, ideally, would conceive of the movement's end as a more equitable system fully re-architected from the ground-up (she did not, unfortunately, have a chance to go into specifics).

Secondly, the movement faces an enormous organizational and operational hurdle in the way it fetishizes its working groups and horizontal structure and lack of leadership and rejection of narratives, because this granular, piecemeal approach not only limits the movement's prospects but necessitates that whatever change it effects remain local in three dimensions: the geographic, the chronological, and the ideological. It will only ever—by its own insistence!—make baby steps; it won't (and can't!) be starting the revolution. And this exposes a massive internal inconsistency, because a movement so committed to not making demands of the status quo because of its Bartleby-esque refusal to participate has also imposed an arbitrary upper bound not only on what it can accomplish but on where, exactly, and in what sort of world it may be accomplished.

Now one of the great promises of the Occupy movement (that is, at least, for me, someone who willingly admits to projecting his radical leftism on a movement at least nominally uninterested in having any of it) is where it stands in the historical trajectory of post-'68 organizing, a sort of soothing synthesis to the thesis/antithesis of the now-clichéd fracturing of the Seventies left and, later, the violent ineffectuality of the G8 protests. Here now is (at last!) a peaceful movement offering a uniquely simple, comprehensible and, at least according to public polling, widely agreeable message: the problem is money. Which is a lovely and long-awaited contrast to the history of the left over the last four decades, a time defined by internal battles among leftists to determine which issue would sit atop the movement's pantheon rather than uniting against the material conditions in place that adversely affected all of them.

And yet from what I saw last night—and, frankly, what I've seen from a lot of the movement thus far—the majority of these panelists were content to just go through the same old motions, to patch the leaks on the sinking ship until the next time the moneyed elite slowly punch holes in the hull once again.

Slavoj Žižek editorialized in The Guardian recently that "one of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves." I was reminded of those words last night, worried that this danger had already been realized as panelist after panelist congratulated either the movement's commitment to "little-'d' democracy" or its unwillingness to issue demands. The movement has already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's got a great short game, but I worry those tactics can't survive the long haul (not to mention the fast-approaching winter). I worry if a group of people generally either unwilling or unable to think beyond the status quo can ever drastically alter it. Mostly, though, I just worry that this uniquely and enormously promising moment will go to waste because a movement so busy falling in love with itself for being horizontal and leaderless will forever remain a movement in which no one person speaks as a representative—and, as a result, will ultimately remain a movement in which anyone who speaks at all speaks representatively—because by and large I'm not convinced the representatives I've seen so far could answer the only real question: "What is to be done?"

Matt Langer is a technologist and writer living in Brooklyn who really just wishes Keith Gessen and Astra Taylor had talked more last night.

Photo by Timothy Krause.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

Murgatroid (#2,904)

Keith Gessen, OWS panel moderator and Gossip Girl cameo star, proving that you can actually have it all.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Murgatroid It is difficult to get past that, yes. But maybe worth it?

skylin (#174,856)

I can understand frustration with the political structures that have gotten us to this point. What I can't understand, and what infuriates me to no end, is a refusal to acknowledge that those structures exist,http://bit.ly/tBlMQ8

deepomega (#1,720)

Really impressed you managed to not mention Žižek till the last paragraph. But where was your self-identification as a Lacanian? Seems like an oversight!

deepomega (#1,720)

@deepomega I would also have accepted "Neomarxist."

wb (#2,214)

@deepomega There's a argument about Lacan's mirror stage to be made about OWS, but I'll leave it for someone else. Or maybe Žižek's bit about falling in love with themselves is that argument?

riotnrrd (#840)

Maybe I am old, but I fail to see how not having demands is a strength. Without a goal, OWS is easily dismissed as a bunch of no-goodniks or lazy hippies. What's wrong with big goals like: end free trade, create new, higher tax brackets, public funding for all national elections, etc. How is demanding that the system be fixed counterproductive? I don't get it.

H.E. Ladypants (#173,749)

@riotnrrd I think I there are a few reasons:

1) Demands are devicive. As soon as you make a demand you alienate one group or another, for good or ill. Much of OWS power lies in the refusal to do so and thereby be construed as "x" group or "y" group. This way the movement remains open.

2) All it takes is the perception of one horrifically counter intuitive or silly stance or belief and the entire movement can be maligned and deflated. By having no stance they give people less ammunition against them.

3) We purposefully elect people to give them the job of managing the nation-state. It is those people to whom we have delegated this responsibility who should begin publicly offering solutions (which can then be debated, call imperfect, and worked with.) I think the purpose of OWS is to point out that, yes, there is a SERIOUS problem and rewrite the rules of the debate.

I could be wrong but that's my take.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@riotnrrd I couldn't agree more. Not having demands is problematic for a bunch of reasons: it makes the movement easy to dismiss and easy for its opponents to pigeonhole and define it in the eyes of middle America; it gives free rein to anyone who wants to coopt OWS for their own ends (witness the "black brigade" or whatever they're called in Oakland), because there's no unified message competing with the loudmouths; and worst, it furthers the sense that all of these people camping, marching and lending support won't be there on election day, because voting would just be, like, too much part of the system, man.

I can understand frustration with the political structures that have gotten us to this point. What I can't understand, and what infuriates me to no end, is a refusal to acknowledge that those structures exist, and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, and failing to do what you can do within them to effect change, IN ADDITION TO calling for larger structural reforms, just means that you can say hello to President Mittens and goodbye to reproductive rights and what few environmental protections we have left, in, like, a year.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@H.E. Ladypants "Demands are devicive. As soon as you make a demand you alienate one group or another, for good or ill. Much of OWS power lies in the refusal to do so and thereby be construed as "x" group or "y" group. This way the movement remains open." That exact same thing could be said about the Democratic Party and how's that worked out over the last 20 years?

Alex Balk (#4)

@Abe Sauer They're 3-for-5.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Alex Balk on picking the band that plays the inaugural ball, sure. On achievements for middle and low income Americans, it's more like foot-in-the-ass for 1,245,

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@Abe Sauer Rebuttal

barnhouse (#1,326)

@riotnrrd There's nothing wrong with thinking about an endgame, or about eventual desirable outcomes for the community/the country, but it's going to take a lot to turn this ocean liner around. For the moment, OWS is changing the conversation, in the media but even more importantly, among ordinary Americans all over the country. It can stay like that and everyone can bicker for a long time. This movement has achieved and is achieving incredible things OUTSIDE Zuccotti Park. #justkeepgoing

There is an ignorance here about the operation of mayoral control over our schools that is highly disturbing in this piece; mayoral control has operated without any effective checks and balances, and we have had nine of years of the PEP meetings in which they have rubberstamped corrupt contracts, privatization, and damaging policies, in lockstep, like some 3rd rate Party Congress during the last days of the USSR. It is a disgrace and it would behoove the author to learn a little about what has been occurring in public education before expounding on the subject.

LL Smooth J (#174,779)

@riotnrrd not having demands is almost a kind of non-violent resistance in itself. Right now you could just say the occupiers are just hovering, which makes the people they are hovering over uncomfortable. The political conversation has already changed from government spending to inequality, and OWS deserves much of the credit for that. If they had issued demands news cycles ago, we wouldn't be talking about them anymore.

But if it's so important to come up with a big demand, it should be cultural and not political: demand a society that recognizes other success besides wealth.

PatrickJSullivan (#8,461)

Had I known Mr. Gessen's excellent panel discussion was examining the events at the Chancellor's meeting, I would have come to listen. I represent Manhattan on the PEP and was in attendance on Oct 25th.

What I find most ridiculous about Langer's account is how he offhandedly equates the role of overseeing the education of 1.1 million children with the role played by executive staffers. With the exception of a few cities, Americans have elected school boards that represent communities and select a qualified superintendent to manage public education. We have instead a system whereby one man makes all decisions without checks and balances. Right now his primary focus is on handing over vast swathes of the public school infrastructure and funding to charter schools controlled by hedge fund titans. Long before there was an OWS there were many of us with concerns about very wealthy people who send their own children to private schools controlling the education of our children. With unprecedented corruption, overcrowding, test prep replacing teaching, layoffs, arts & science lost, at some point people get tired of the "write your question neatly on an index card" form of participation that the mayor offers. If Langer and Gessen find the response from teachers and parents "disturbing" then perhaps they can find some time to examine the underlying issues driving that response.

@barnhouse, @LL, etc. seem exactly right: the plurality of individual demands (and kookinesses) is an asset. As those demands start to vibrate around central themes—inequality; joblessness, dignity—those principles seem much more organic, much more social, much less wonkery. Point at the income charts and yell "Fix THIS!"

The worry that the movement will be wasted is misplaced–I'd go so far as to say it's NY malaise. The general strike in Oakland shows what can happen when "Fix THIS!" becomes "Stop it now!" Not bad. More practically, the impending defeat of issue 2 in Ohio builds on the Occupy movement, the Wisconsin protests, etc., etc. The wave of public-union busting may be stopping now, and, frankly I don't think that would be the case without the (nonviolent, utterly compelling) OWS movement.

Mindpowered (#948)

@Krugmanic Depressive

I'm sorry if you demand nothing, you'll get nothing. The conceit that by simply existing the system will change around you has been shown a failure throughout history. Did the boomers get anything by sitting around the pentagon and karmicly wishing the bad spirits out? No. We find ourself in an even worse situation, with a giant bloated security apparatus that ritually humiliates breast cancer survivors, and tortures our enemies.

Real progress in the last 40 years, in civil rights, n reproductive rights, women's rights, and queer rights have been the results of specific demands for specific things;we'd like marriage thank you, or we'd like the right o access birth control in it's many forms. Or how about the right to sit at the front of the bus. Moreover it takes decades of grinding work to even begin to turn the ship from its course.

To simply change the conversation allows the establishment to run out the clock, and change it back again. It will take one event to shift attention elsewhere and the moment will be lost.

Where I am the OWS has degenerated into farce with heroin overdoses, rats and fire hazards, the rise of the professional protester, and destruction of the original message of "inequality" and it's replacement by "I want".

Mindpowered (#948)

Next time, if you want to do something useful, occupy the republican party. It could use the return of it's middle and left. All you'd have to do is get control of the primary process and force out the tea party candidates.

Simple, and far more effective.

seems like it would take some money to do that. none of it's coming from the party, so that means building a fundraising infrastructure from the ground up. to elect republicans. good luck.

Turboslut (#1,036)

Your link's broken, dawg:


Elly Faden@twitter (#174,938)

OK – a movement that started as a perfect storm, uniting millions around the world about, um, money – or more specifically, taxing the rich, and is still going strong, is horizontal and doomed? I would highly recommend that Mr. Langer get on some of the conference calls, go to some GA's, sleep out somewhere, and find out what's REALLY happening before writing a silly critique. We could use your help. And, for the real insiders, one word will do: hongpong!

Totally support the movement, but lack of realpolitical narrative is an issue

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

I like the exclamation points!

Policies that promote privatization and corporatization of public services, including public education, are the hallmark of the current system governed by the 1%. It is indeed "disturbing." We, the 99%, want a democratic public school system.

Ann_Kjellberg (#200,538)

Just stumbled on this. What you say here about the PEP is really ill informed and egregious. The PEP used to be an elected school board and is now a piece of court theater that mocks Bloomberg's real-life constituents entangled in the city's million-strong public school system, among our city's neediest people. If all Occupy enthusiasts pay so little attention to what goes on in real-life politics the movement really is in trouble.

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